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Frustrated by Pipeline Myths Albertans Tell Themselves? Here Are the Facts

A guide to educating relatives and friends who cling to oily falsehoods.

Andrew Nikiforuk 21 May

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Alberta’s major exports these days seem to be piles of misinformation, denial, blame, and propaganda on the state-owned Trans Mountain pipeline.

According to some of the more ridiculous claims, environmentalists are to blame for bitumen price discounts, Vancouverites are being punished for their orca-loving ways with high gasoline prices, and climate change really doesn’t matter.

Their politicians don’t dare admit the reality — that combined overproduction of bitumen and U.S. tight oil brought down the global price of oil with a thundering crash in 2014. In the world we inhabit now, oil business as usual has died.

Given that we all have and love our Alberta relatives and friends, here’s a brief guide on how to reply to some of the false claims being traded like crypto-currency among Alberta’s political columnists, Liberals, New Democrats and the United Conservatives.

False Alberta claim: American oil companies are financing anti-pipeline groups so Albertan oil will keep going south and not reach Chinese markets where it can get higher prices.

There is no evidence to support this wild and silly conspiracy theory, which one Tyee reader asked us to debunk.

The facts are these: Over decades the U.S. has built more than half of the world’s heavy oil refining capacity in the Midwest and Gulf Coast for a variety of reasons.

Asia owns but 23 per cent of global capacity to refine heavy oil. It’s not willing to pay more for bitumen than the U.S., because it costs more to ship it there. 

Alberta’s low royalty policy encouraged the industry to strip and ship diluted bitumen instead of adding value by building more upgrading facilities and complex refineries.

The province’s dependence on U.S. markets and pipelines is a direct product of what was billed in 2006 as Alberta’s “give-it-away” strategy.

As Mexican and Venezuelan supplies of heavy crude decline, the demand for Canadian bitumen will actually increase in U.S. refinery markets. 

Contrary to Alberta’s propaganda claims, not all heavy oil is discounted and Canada often gets good value for its junk crude in U.S. markets.

Even last year, when discounts really hit hard, the price of Canadian heavy oil in Houston often traded at a premium to West Texas Intermediate. 

According to a prominent U.S. research firm, Canadian heavy oil imports “will be increasingly in demand in the United States... however, the pace of Canadian heavy oil growth is set to slow owing to the declining level of oil sands projects.”

China, the world’s largest oil importer, gets lots of heavy and high-carbon oil from Russia and Venezuela. Unless replaced with cleaner forms of energy, “imports of contaminating oil” will make it impossible for China to achieve its environmental goals, according to World Energy Magazine.

False Alberta claim: Carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant.

So opines Calgary Herald columnist Chris Nelson: “The federal environment minister talks as though carbon dioxide is a pollutant... Raw sewage into the St. Lawrence? Now that’s pollution.”

In the real world facing catastrophic climate shifts, the oil and gas sector accounts for 27 per cent of Canada’s national greenhouse gas emissions, or more than the transportation sector. It remains the largest single growing source of carbon pollution in the nation. 

Since the industrial revolution, humans have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by more than one-third and that’s destabilizing the climate, which, in turn, is forcing mass migrations and unsettling economies.  

NASA scientists call this dramatic carbon surge “the most important long-lived forcing of climate change,” sea level rises and ocean acidification.

As a result, most scientists view the dramatic atmospheric increases in carbon dioxide as pollution.

False Alberta claim: Two years of pipeline obstruction have put B.C. over the barrel with gasoline prices. Only an expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline can ease the shortage and ease gasoline prices in the Lower Mainland.

This one appears on social media, and none of it is really true. But the refinery market picture is complicated and not terribly transparent.

First, the primary purpose of the Trans Mountain expansion project is to export more heavy oil. Its application says nothing about bringing more refined products to B.C. or lowering gasoline prices.

Most of the gasoline consumed in B.C., the nation’s fourth largest market for refined fuels, is made by four Alberta refineries and moved along the existing 65-year-old Trans Mountain pipeline. Less than 10 per cent of the province’s gasoline comes from refineries in Washington State.

(An historical note: when the Trans Mountain pipeline was built in the 1950s, Vancouver supported four refineries, but as the line exported more oil to U.S. refineries, local refining died off in the 1990s with the exception of Parkland, formerly Chevron, in Burnaby.)

The Vancouver market has no ready access to refined products brought by sea, so it is a price taker. Economist Robyn Allan calculates that neither taxes, nor scarcity of supply, fully explain why the region has some of Canada’s highest gasoline prices.

A study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives suggests Alberta refineries have been price gouging Vancouver consumers since 2010, because they can do so due to lack of local competition.

According to energy analyst David Hughes, the shipment of refined products on Trans Mountain pipeline fell from 18 per cent of capacity to 10 per cent in 2018. He doesn’t know the reason.

Everyone agrees that there needs to be more transparency and regulatory oversight on gasoline pricing to prevent price gouging. 

To date, high prices have had a predictable effect: B.C.’s per capita consumption of refined petroleum goods is 11 per cent below the national average.

False Alberta claim: Canada’s social and economic welfare depends on bitumen.

A growing oil and gas industry is “the most vital economic lever in Canada’s economy” and helps us build hospitals and schools, writes columnist Nelson in the Calgary Herald.

That’s a big laugh.

Despite 47 per cent growth in Canada’s oil and gas production since 2000 — largely from the tar sands — royalty payments to government have declined 59 per cent, notes respected energy analyst David Hughes.

So, too, has the industry’s proportional contribution to GDP.

According to data from Natural Resources Canada, taxes paid by the oil and gas industry since 2006 have dropped from $12 billion to $6 billion.

Selling off our oil and gas resources for declining revenues is a bad business model, notes Hughes.

False Alberta claim: Alberta’s oil is morally clean.

“Alberta’s oil is ethical and among the most ethically regulated industries in the world,” trumpets former journalist, now B.C.-based oil and mining advocate Stewart Muir in the Globe and Mail.

There is light oil and heavy oil, but no refinery has ever begged for ethical oil.

That’s because it doesn’t exist. If Alberta has done such a “moral” job of regulating its resources, what happened to its rainy day fund?

And if the industry has behaved so ethically, why will Alberta and Canadian taxpayers likely be on the hook for cleaning up and decommissioning $260-billion worth of abandoned wells, pipelines and gas plants? 

How ethical is it to allow an industry to set aside funds of $1.6 billion to cover hundreds of billions of dollars in liabilities?

New research says that “carbon dioxide emission intensities for oil sands facilities are 13 to 123 per cent larger than those estimated using publicly available data.” 

Is that an ethical development?  

False Alberta claim: Without the Trans Mountain expansion, Alberta will languish in the doldrums.

Lots of Albertans think this. But the U.S., not China, has 55 per cent of the world’s heavy oil refineries.

The completion of the Line 3 pipeline by 2020, and Keystone XL pipeline by 2022, will allow Alberta to export 1.2 million barrels a day to the U.S. Gulf Coast, where bitumen will replace declining imports of Mexican and Venezuelan heavy crude.

Those two lines make Trans Mountain, which can’t be built until 2022, unnecessary and uneconomic.

Analyst Hughes poses a good question: if Canadians had a choice of completing two industry-funded projects over relatively flat North American prairie, or one costly taxpayer-funded-project over the Rockies through one of Canada’s most populated cities, which would they choose?

False Alberta claim: Every day Canada is losing $30 to $40 million because the nation lacks sufficient pipeline capacity to get our diluted bitumen to world markets.

These numbers are a complete fiction.

Does Stephen King go around whining he is losing money because he hasn’t written a bestselling book yet? No.

And what industry would last a month with these kind of fictional losses? 

To illustrate the grandiosity of the claim, just consider the finances of Suncor, one of Canada’s largest bitumen miners. If the industry were losing so much money every day, you’d expect Suncor to be bleeding, too. 

But that’s not what its financial statements say. 

In fact, Suncor has been recording tidy profits for years, because it mines, upgrades and refines bitumen into a variety of refined products. 

The company also hedges against oil price volatility and heavy oil discounts. Even with mandated provincial cuts in production, the company produced 396,000 barrels of bitumen in the first quarter of 2019, with net earnings of $1.4 billion compared to $789 million in 2018.

Husky and Imperial Oil, the province’s other big producers, also reported healthy returns this year.

“We delivered more funds from operations compared to the first quarter of 2018, despite Alberta government quotas on our oil production, and even with global oil prices pretty much on par in Canadian dollar terms,” boasted Husky CEO Rob Peabody.

So don’t try bullying British Columbians with fictional losses produced by fictional pipelines.

Alberta’s three major bitumen producers make money regardless of pipeline politics, because they do everything Alberta failed to do: they hedge, add value and refine.

False Alberta claim: Our turn-off-the-taps legislation will cause utter havoc in the Lower Mainland and B.C.’s unicorn worshippers will be very sorry.

Good luck with that.

B.C. represents 20 per cent of the market for refined petroleum goods for Alberta. Do you think Imperial Oil and Suncor really want to lose that market share?

Is flagellation a good way to ease a headache? 

Wait a minute: maybe Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is a foreign-funded environmental radical hell-bent on trashing the oil sands? 

False Alberta claim: Alberta needs to get more oil to China because its authoritarian government will pay more for “ethical” bitumen than U.S. Gulf Coast refiners.

Mexico tried that route and it didn’t get a higher price for its heavy Maya crude. Just check the prices here at

And don’t forget about the law of supply and demand. If the Trans Mountain expansion gets built and exports more than 500,000 barrels of heavy crude to Asia, oversupply will drop bitumen prices, not inflate them, notes economist Robyn Allan.

“Why would increasing the supply of heavy oil to China increase the price?” asks Allan, former head of B.C. Crown corporation ICBC.

Energy companies want to spend $232 billion on additional oil and gas pipeline capacity in North America to meet demand growth in Asia. But a new report by Global Energy Monitor notes that there is no guarantee Asia markets will drink all of these exports.

“The current surge in pipeline construction may prove to be fleeting as the legal system, public opinion, and financial markets increasingly challenge the fossil fuel industry.” 

False Alberta claim: U.S.-funded environmentalists have kept Alberta crude landlocked and crippled the province by preventing access to Asian markets.

So says activist Vivian Krause to rooms full of rapturous oil executives and other oil sands supporters. But Alberta’s bitumen has always been landlocked, and it will always be subject to volatile discounts due to its low quality and transportation costs, regardless of what environmental protesters do or say.

As Hughes notes, “Oil shipped on the Trans Mountain expansion to Asia would lose $5 per barrel compared to pipelines under development, due to higher premiums paid on the U.S. Gulf Coast and higher shipping costs to Asia.” 

851px version of TankerDemonstrationNorthVan.jpg
Alberta’s bitumen was targeted by environmentalists because it’s dirty oil. Period. Photo by David P. Ball.

Krause, a pro-pipeline advocate and blogger, is right about U.S. funding for some environmental groups. 

But she forgets to explain that most Canadian environmental campaigns, targeting fossil fuels or not, have always involved U.S. funding. And she doesn’t provide any perspective by adding up the tens of millions of dollars that industry and governments have spent advocating for expanded oil sands production.

Krause implies that the oil sands campaign had something to do with a conspiracy to protect U.S. oil production, forgetting that fracked tight U.S. oil is a vastly different product than Canada’s heavy sour crude.

No conspiracy existed. The campaign largely focused on bitumen’s distinct character. Such crude has higher energy costs and an extreme carbon footprint compared to conventional oils.

Alberta’s remains one of the world’s dirtiest oils, with emissions 102 to 204 per cent higher than average U.S. refinery crude on a well-to-tank basis that includes all the emissions from mining, upgrading and refining. 

That’s why Alberta’s oil was targeted. Period. 

And given that oil sands production has increased 376 per cent since 2000, and overall oil and gas production has grown by 47 per cent in Canada, “the alleged foreign funded attack” has been damn ineffective, notes analyst Hughes.

One Alberta claim that may be credible: B.C.’s premier is a hypocrite.

Columnist Don Braid made this charge in the Calgary Herald: “In B.C. Premier John Horgan won’t support the $10-billion Trans Mountain expansion but is championing and subsidizing LNG export terminals and fracking. He is a hypocrite.” 

Actually, by those terms, Horgan is a hypocrite. 

The carbon footprint of fracked gas is large and ugly. In addition, the economics of the fracking industry are so poor that the industry requires enormous subsidies from taxpayers in the form of low royalties, free water, tax credits and cheap electricity from the unfinished and scandal-plagued Site C dam.

Had Braid really warmed to his theme, he might have added this about B.C.’s premier. Regarding the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, economist Allan notes that Horgan is not really fighting it as he promised “with every tool in the tool box.”

Had he pushed for a provincial environmental assessment, he could have killed the project. But he refused to do that.

“Horgan is just sending out signals that he is fighting, and that is all he is doing,” says Allan.

But saying this would undercut the script in Alberta, which requires Horgan to play the villainous wrecker of pipeline dreams.

Truth can be painful.

Add it all up and such truths become far too inconvenient for spreaders of self-pitying myths in Alberta. Global market forces rather than some grand conspiracy of foreign environmentalists and B.C. politicians are hurting bitumen sales. Even if they get their pipeline, the trends bode ill for the province’s oil-dependent economy. Time for Albertans to face facts and get on with living in a reality-based 21st-century.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Environment

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